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Asia » Kazakhstan » Karaganda
August 31st 2011
Published: September 2nd 2011
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SURPRISING STEPPE
DISCOVERING THE ROOTS OF KAZAKH CULTURE

Petroglyphs of Terekty-Aulie

Leaving the asphalt behind, our driver has to win the fight against the jolty tracks of the steppe – and he succeeds brilliantly. The first stop of the journey: Terekty-Aulie – a collection of rock carvings (petroglyphs) in the heart of the Kazakh lowlands. With its origins in the Middle to Late Bronze Age (about 1500-100 BC), the carvings bear a central meaning for Muslim-Kazakh faith. In Terekty-Aulie we are faced with the remains of past nomadic cultures carved into granite. The word “Aulie” relates to the Arabian name for a saint (“wali”) and alludes to the significant meaning this place embodies for Muslim pilgrims. Islamic Mysticism contains the belief that the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law blessed this place with his godly gift (“barakah”) on his journey through Central Asia. According to the legend, some of the petroglyphs illustrate the footprints of Saint Ali and his loyal horse Duldul. The majority of the hitherto found carvings (about 90%) depict the primordial horse Takhi (also named: Przewalski’s horse). In most indigenous societies in Central Asia the horse plays a prominent role in terms of religious practices and belief. Horses were essential not only as food and as a basis for the production of everyday goods necessary for survival in the steppe but also for sacrifice in shamanic rites. It is well known that nomadic tribes in the Altai Mountains sacrificed horses in order to appease their god Ulgen. Guided by the horse’s spirit, the shaman could find entrance to the highest levels of heaven with the objective of keeping the local people from harm.
Close to the rock formation we catch sight of a small cemetery against the backdrop of the endless wideness of the steppe – liberating the mind from the narrowness of the city and its own thinking for a short while. The fact that Terekty-Aulie has been a holy place for such a long time makes us aware of the special aura surrounding the rocks.
In the cemetery we find the mausoleums of the Kazakh Bagnaly and Baltaly clans. Even today Kazakh people make pilgrimages to these graves in order to render homage to their ancestors (“Ata-Baba”), some of whom were blessed with the barakah gift. For some Muslim pilgrims, visiting the graves at Terekty-Aulie is part of their spiritual journey called ziyarat – a journey to places which are associated with Muhammad or persons related to him. People of faith have a complimentary dinner in remembrance of their ancestral fathers and attach pieces of cloth to the iron fences framing the tombs.

Alasha Khan Mausoleum

Our bumpy ride through the steppe continues taking us further and further away from the highway to a mythical place on the right bank of the Karakengir River at the foot of the Ulytau Mountains. If the legend is to be believed, in this place lies the origin of the three Kazakh clans, the so-called “Zhuzes” which still play a central role in the culture and society of contemporary Kazakhstan. It is the mausoleum of Alasha Khan – an important figure in Kazakh ancient stories and myths. The mausoleum is situated amidst an old cemetery. In front of it you will see the inscription “Улы Жуз, Орта Жуз, Киши Жуз” (Great Zhuz, Middle Zhuz, Little Zhuz) engraved in stone.
The red brick stone building has been restored and is protected by the Kazakh government. It was built somewhere around the eleventh and twelfth centuries in honour of Alasha Khan, who is said to have established the three Zhuzes. Whether he really existed or not is debatable. Some say it is some other ruler lying in this tomb, others even claim that it is Genghis Khan himself. You may not find out the truth about the existence of Alasha Khan by visiting this mausoleum. Generally, tourists who come to spiritual places like this do not necessarily want to know all about the exact historical facts but rather plunge into the world of myths and legends and hear the ancient stories of the past. Locals, on the other hand, come here for other reasons. You will see many cloths and ribbons tied to the gates surrounding the mausoleum – many people come here to pray for an ill relative; women who wish to get pregnant ask for a child. Often, you also discover old bed sheets of ill people placed on storied graves. Their ancestors bring them here in the hope of a fast recovery.
The legend of Alasha Khan is only one of many. It allows us an insight into the past, the former life of the nomads and the meaning and importance of such holy places for Kazakh culture. If you manage to climb up the narrow stairs inside the mausoleum, you will find yourself on the roof next to the cupola. From here you have a fantastic view of the rest of the surrounding prehistoric cemetery. You can see ancient mausoleums directly next to graves from the present time. The older tombs remind us of gigantic bee hives. They always lack a cupola because this part of the building is usually the first to suffer from weather and time.

Dombauyl Mausoleum

After this, the trip continues heading towards Dombauyl. Passing a small collection of huts where a few animals and people live side by side on the riverbank. Considering the fact that the water level of the Karakengir is relatively low at this time, we decide to cross it by car. Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a small strip of fertile land which - with its green vegetation - relieves the eye from the otherwise scanty landscape of the wide steppe.
Arriving at Dombauyl we see a yurt-shaped mausoleum which consists of innumerable layers of stone. At a height of six metres, the Dombauyl Mausoleum is one of the most ancient sites of pre-Islamic life in the heart of Kazakhstan. It is hard to tell the exact date of origin of the restored tomb but some archeologists date it back to the time of the Huns (around 8th to 9th century). This is a place shrouded in the legend of the ancient warrior and musician Dombauyl, who was a well-known follower of Genghis Khan. The Mausoleum is an example of a typical stone-made tomb (Kazakh: uitasami, dynami), the likes of which can be found in several locations in Central Kazakhstan.

Zhutshi Khan Mausoleum

Getting back in the van, we head towards another central destination of our tour: the famous tomb of Zhutshi Khan. As soon as we see the monument in the distance, the turquoise colour of the cupola contrasting with the drab hues of the steppe catches our eye. The Mausoleum of Zhutshi Khan grandly towers above all the other graves at the site – and for good reason: according to the legend, it is none other than Genghis Khan’s oldest son Zhutshi who is buried under the impressive dome. Although there is no evidence that Genghis Khan was his biological father, Zhutshi was undoubtedly acknowledged by the great ruler as his son. The exact reason for Zhutshi’s death is so far unknown. As legend has it, Zhutshi fell off his horse while hunting. An donkey (also known as onager) supposedly bit off his right hand before he died. Other theories even take into consideration that Genghis Khan himself could have sent killers after his son because the latter had disobeyed him. For this reason the Mausoleum of Zhutshi Khan is one of the most impressive monuments of Kazakh culture.

Zhezdy Museum of the History of Mining and Smelting

We spend the second half of the day visiting two important museums in Central Kazakhstan, which is a perfect plan as it has started to rain. The Museum of the History of Mining and Smelting is worth a visit not only for those interested in the technical aspects of these industries. It officially opened in 1994 and is the only museum in Central Asia dealing with this kind of topic. The museum illustrates the importance of this branch of industry for Kazakhstan’s economy and politics as well as for social life of its people.
Kazakhstan has plenty of natural resources like coal, fossil fuels, copper, iron, lead, zinc, gold and many more. They obviously play a crucial role for the country’s economy. On top of that, the convenient location of Kazakhstan in the middle of Eurasia is of great interest for many countries. The history of the extraction and processing of those natural resources and the politics behind all this is very fascinating from many points of view.
The tour of the museum starts outside. Here we find various exhibits of machinery used for the extraction and processing of different materials. Inside, there are several show rooms in which you can delve into the multi-faceted history of mining and metal processing in Kazakhstan from the Stone Age until today. With the help of models and diagrams you also learn about the different work techniques and their development through time. Additionally, you get a brief impression of Kazakh history, culture, geography and ecology. The museum also performs educational work by organizing lectures, excursions and other activities and events.

Ulytau Museum

We rush past some beautiful scenery which – even though you hardly notice it at first sight – constantly changes its colours and contours. After driving for a long time and losing our thoughts again and again in the wide lowlands, which gives us a strange but somehow soothing and pleasant feeling, a rocky landscape slowly rises from the horizon in front of us. As the car stops we find ourselves in a small and sleppy village at the foot of the holy Ulytau Mountains. A local guide welcomes us and leads us into the museum. The newly established Ulytau Museum has a variety of information: the history of nomadic life in Kazakhstan as well as exhibits concerning traditional Kazakh culture, the surrounding nature and Kazakh handicrafts are displayed here. This museum is very fascinating for us because up to this point we were not that familiar with Kazakh culture. We like the yurts – the colourful fabrics and wood carvings fill the traditional Kazakh dwelling with a lively splendour.
The obligatory section about Nazarbayev is not missing: the Ulytau Museum has a nice wooden chair which was used by the famous president himself during his visit of this mountain region.

Ulytau Mountains

Following the traces of nomads and shamans we step even deeper into the world of ancient stories and myths. The Ulytau Mountains – probably the most magical and legendary spot in Central Kazakhstan – come closer and closer. For Turkic nomadic peoples and khans of Central Asia these mountains were a place of special cosmic energy and healing power. On our way to the top we pass by a mountain spring and refill our bottles with fresh and cool water before starting off on the steep and adventurous climb. It is believed that water from this spring possesses curative powers. Even today, many local healers use it to cure seriously ill people. Its healing energy is said to be famous even beyond the borders of Kazakhstan. Generally, it is not unusual for ritual places where religious practices take place to be situated near springs or fountains. Spring water symbolises purification as well as healing, transformation and salvation. Spring goddesses bring life and fertility. At the same time, fountains and springs are places where a big part of social life happens – they are places where people meet and interact. Even if one does not believe in the healing power of the water, it is without doubt very refreshing and healthy.
The climb is not so easy but can be very liberating at the same time. You can take the time to think about yourself and feel the special aura of this place. Once you have reached the peak a beautiful view opens up in front of you. Up here you can enjoy the spiritual and physical greatness of the Ulytau Mountains. On top of the mountain called “Aulie” there is a small grotto as well as many old graves from different centuries. Famous healers and shamans from this region are buried here. People believe this mountain to be inhabited by the ghosts of their ancestors and ancient gods, which gives it its exceptional power. Here, a human being can become one with nature.
The term “Aulie” is part of many names of religious places and sites in Kazakhstan. Places named like this are believed to have a special energy. In former times they were sites of cults and rites among nomadic peoples. Even today people still climb the Ulytau Mountains in order to perform their religious customs and rituals. They come here in the hope of getting help from their gods and ancestors. Among Muslims it is common to take time and pray before ascending to the top. It is said that for believers the climb is not exhausting at all.
In the village of Ulytau a newly built guest house can be rented out by tourists during the summer. A typical bath and a yurt where one can enjoy a Kazakh meal during mild summer evenings are situated at the same site. Beginning in 2009 a tourism project was initiated in Ulytau, with the aim of restoring museums and historical sites in the area.

Archaeological Excavation Site Baskamyr

On the way back from the mountains we make a stop at the ruins of the medieval site Baskamyr. This small settlement was surrounded by a trench and the shapes of the four towers are still identifiable. Nowadays you can mainly find fragments of rooms which assumedly were used for storage purposes. And this is what makes the place unique. It is one of the only places where the evidence of nomadic culture goes beyond mere grave architecture. The estimated date of origin is traced back to a period between the 8th and 11th centuries. Full of new impressions, we stop one last time at the Monument of the Unity of the People of Kazakhstan before we head back home. The huge sculpture is not extraordinarily extraordinarily beautiful, but a short visit is worthwhile as the monument marks the geographic centre of Kazakhstan. We are a bit surprised to find out that the whole statue is made out of plastic. After all the cameras have disappeared into their cases and all the tired passengers have reassembled in the van, we traverse the wide Kazakh steppe before we fall into our beds in Karaganda, exhausted and filled with great impressions.

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